Jewish food gathering is a true Rocky Mountain high

We’ve come a long way in the Jewish food movement. When Hazon started holding food conferences — the first one was on the East Coast in 2006, and I was one of just two Californians participating — the concept of planting gardens at synagogues and JCCs or picking up community-supported agriculture boxes of produce at Jewish institutions was still fairly new, especially to lay leaders. The conferences were just as much for the average person interested in eating more sustainably as it was for rabbis, educators and farmers.

Last month, more than 60 Jewish chefs, food entrepreneurs and food writers met in Colorado for the Harvest, a gathering presented by Hazon and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. As a veteran of four of the Hazon conferences, I didn’t find the Colorado event particularly revolutionary in terms of its food programming, but the focus was entirely different, attracting people for whom food plays a major role in their professional lives.

Joshua Pollack prepares his marijuana-infused salmon and matzah balls at the Colorado conference. photo/chelsea beck

The Bay Area was well represented by people who have been written about in J.: Elianna Friedman of Bay Leaf Kitchen, Avital Ungar, who leads Avital Food Tours, chef Ezra Malmuth of the Bay Laurel Group and Jacobs Farm manager Emily Freed. Highlights included a presentation by Ari Weinzweig, co-founder of Zingerman’s deli in Michigan, and witnessing a kosher slaughter.

The stated purpose of Schusterman Connection Point programs — about 12 this year held around the world and on a variety of topics in Jewish life — is to help attendees make connections with others in the same field, around the subject they are most passionate about, and see what develops.

For me, the true value of the conference came during the more informal moments, whether during meals or while on walks. I had met or written about several of the Bay Area participants in the past, but having time to get to know them in this setting, a gorgeous ranch and retreat center in the Colorado Rockies, was definitely a highlight.

Our opening meal was a collaborative, kosher-style dinner made by professional chefs in the group and planned mostly through email. All five dishes were fish courses, and the chefs came out to tell us what they had made. A sommelier who was part of the group and had been given the menu in advance did his best to pair each course with wines from the ranch’s collection. Not your run-of-the-mill Jewish conference.

On the second and final evening — it was a very short conference — our dinner was cooked by Hosea Rosenberg, a Jewish winner of the popular show “Top Chef.” Prior to eating our asado (an Argentinian-style barbecue where animals are cooked on spits over an open fire), we witnessed the kosher slaughter of a sheep. To lighten the mood, we were then treated to a demo by Joshua Pollack, owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels in Denver, on cooking with cannabis.

Writer Alix Wall shakes her lulav at the Jewish food conference. photo/chelsea beck

Given that cooking with marijuana requires either fat or alcohol, he combined his love for pot with his love for Jewish food to come up with a new kind of “smoked” salmon last year, which got him quite a lot of attention in the press. He did the salmon for us and also introduced marijuana-infused schmaltz matzah balls. Neither item is for sale in his deli, because he’s still trying to figure out how to regulate the amount of THC. Most of us sampled the goods; such things can happen in a state where marijuana has been legal for recreational use since 2012.

As someone who has seen her share of pot-smoking at Jewish gatherings but always as an after-hours activity, it felt quite revolutionary to see marijuana treated as an official part of the program — even if it did seriously affect our abilities to parse a bit of Torah after dinner at the request of Hazon founder and president Nigel Savage.

A few saw the marijuana programming as somehow inappropriate, but most people felt the way I did. Pollack noted that Jews were well-represented among those pushing for legalization in Colorado (also the case in California, I told him) and now working in the state’s cannabis industry. As a young man, Pollack said, he saw how pot helped his mother in her battle with cancer, and he himself worked in the medicinal marijuana industry before opening his bagel shop.

When I called the Schusterman foundation to get a comment, I was referred to Justin Korda, San Diego-based executive director of the organization’s ROI (return on investment) community. He said he was somewhat involved with the conference programming but in a very hands-off way. When he heard there would be a cooking demo with cannabis, he said he was completely nonplussed. While “the Schusterman Family Foundation is by no means trying to champion the legalization of marijuana,” he told me, “given the fact that this happened in Colorado, and therefore was totally within the parameters of legal behavior, it really was a nonissue for us.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."